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Milesian theories of the primary substance


To: Alan H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Milesian theories of the primary substance
Date: 29th November 2011 13:32

Dear Alan,

Thank you for your first essay for the Ancient Philosophy program, in response to the question, ''Examining the theories of the Milesian philosophers concerning the nature of the primary substance, we find a progressive clarification of the questions asked and an improvement in the answers given to those question.' Discuss.'

As you observe, we have to labour under the great disadvantage of a paucity of evidence, so that there will be an inevitable degree of unverifiable supposition in the theories we attribute to Thales, Anaximander or Anaximenes. However, that said, the question makes a claim, or rather two claims, and the challenge is to see how, or whether, those claims can be substantiated in a way that, at the very least, can be seen as a plausible conjecture given the evidence we do have.

You also raise the question whether in fact the three Milesian philosophers discussed these questions with one another. It is plausible that they did, given the time scale, even if they were not strictly related as teachers to pupils.

Can we see a progressive clarification in the questions asked? Thales asks where all things 'come from' (or, more contentiously 'what they are made of' -- it's not clear that he made this distinction) and his answer is water, the stuff we drink. Thales also (a point you could have made) observed that 'all things are full of gods', a puzzling remark taken out of context but which could plausibly be seen as an answer to the question why anything happens at all, or why any object can act on any other.

How does Anaximander clarify the question where things come from, or the question what makes things happen? Arguably, positing the 'apeiron' as material which has no specific form of its own is his response to the question, 'Why water? why not some other stuff?' In response to the second, however, he offers the conjecture (which you could have mentioned) about the opposites 'paying penalty and retribution for their injustice according to the assessment of time'. The ultimate stuff of the universe is also the ultimate source of predictability and lawlikeness. That's a question which Thales doesn't seem to have reckoned with at all.

With Anaximenes, we have a further clarification of the question of change. We need a 'something' that changes but we also need an account of what this change consists in. As you note, his contribution is to posit the process of 'condensation and rarefaction' as the universal explanation for all substantial change. At one stroke this destroys the naive idea of 'opposites' as substantial entities existing in their own right. Everything is on a continuous scale, from hot to cold, from wet to dry, from heavy to light. On the other hand, Anaximenes doesn't seem to have anything special to say about the idea of lawlikeness. His air, like Anaximander's apeiron has mind-like properties, and perhaps this element of teleology was his way of acknowledging the fact that the universe is a 'cosmos' not a 'chaos'.

All three thinkers offer a cosmology, however, and that seems to be another valuable clue. This is the payoff, the thing that any 'physical thinker' is expected to supply, as a response to the traditional, more or less mythical creation stories. This is how the world is ordered, taken from the most general perspective, how it came to be; and one can justify that claim in terms of a theory about the very stuff of which it is made.

However, there is a problem with this account which commentators have raised. If, as I have suggested above, Anaximander was responding to the question, 'Why water?', then Anaximenes' rejection of the apeiron theory looks like a retrograde step. In discussing Thales, you say, 'Was [the claim that everything is water] to be taken literally as the substance of rivers, was he using the term metaphorically, or was he engaging in mythical speculation?' If, as seems plausible, he was offering a theory which rationalized views already current, such as the idea that water is of paramount importance in the scheme of things, then, yes, the claim was to be taken literally. If he did think that things are 'made of' water and not just that they 'come from' water, then when you look at water you are looking at the way things really are, the very bricks and mortar of existence.

Anaximander has an objection to this, a good objection. Yet Anaximenes seems to completely ignore this objection and revert to the kind of answer given by Thales. Modern readers tend to see Anaximander as the more progressive thinker, because he 'saw' the need for a more abstract principle, whereas in antiquity it was Anaximenes who was the more celebrated. So there is room for debate here.

All the best,